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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Elinor Levy (Arts Mid-Hudson)

Thursday, September 13, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Evangeline Mee

Elinor Levy joined Arts Mid-Hudson in September 2016 as the Folk Arts Program manager. A native of Oakland, California, she has bounced around the country from California to Indiana, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and now New York. Previously, she worked in Las Vegas as the folklorist for Clark County Parks and Recreation and as executive director of the Northwest Jersey Folklife Project. Having spent the last decade as a folklorist consultant and an adjunct professor, she is excited to be doing public folklore again, especially in the culturally rich Hudson Valley. She has a master’s degree in Anthropology from California State University, Sacramento and a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University. She is a folk artist in her own right as a third generation knitter on her mother’s side. In the past three years she has added spinning her own yarn to her skills and looks forward each year to helping a friend shear a small flock of Jacob sheep. Elinor Levy has been a member of the Public Programs Section, Women's Section, and Politics, Folklore, and Social Justice Section and has served on the 2018 Annual Meeting local planning committee as an organizer of a professional development session.                                             

Photo Left: Elinor Levy, Photo courtesy of On Location Studios

What is your current job, and how does it fit within the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

I am currently the folk arts program manager at Arts Mid-Hudson based in Poughkeepsie, New York. The program works with folk artists and tradition bearers to preserve and presents the heritage of residents in Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties in New York. I am the fourth public folklorist to work for Arts Mid-Hudson (formerly the Dutchess County Arts Council) following in the footsteps of Jane Crandall, Eileen Mary Condon, and Polly Adema. In many ways, there is no day-to-day routine in public folklore. At any given time, I can be writing a grant, preparing a public program, attending meetings for community events that the program supports, or conducting research/fieldwork.

Please briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field?

My first job in public folklore was as a folklorist for Clark County Parks and Recreation Department in Las Vegas, NV. While I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation in Americus, Georgia, I was job hunting. As I contemplated seeking a position with Habitat for Humanity (non-folklore related) I saw a listing for the position through Publore. I worked in Las Vegas until June 2002 when funds ran out and the county government declined to fund the position. I then moved on to the Northwest Jersey Folklife Project (also a Publore listing), as executive director. We had to close the project in 2006 due to lack of funds. I then taught as an adjunct at several higher learning institutions in New Jersey while consulting as a folklorist with Middlesex County Culture and Heritage Commission and Pennsylvania Folklife. In 2015 it was becoming apparent that I needed to leave teaching, partly due to changes at the institutions where I was teaching and partly due to burnout. The opening at Arts Mid-Hudson was brought to my attention, and I was lucky enough to be the successful candidate.

I am back where I started (but not an executive director, which is fine with me!) and thrilled to be here.

What goals drive your work? What kinds of impact do you hope to achieve?

I am driven by the opportunity to bring folklore and folklife to the public, to provide opportunities for cross-cultural sharing and understanding. I hope that people come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding for their own and others’ ways of life.

If you had unlimited time and resources available to develop a research project or public program related to the community in which you reside, how would you use them? What would you hope to accomplish with your project or program?

I am currently working on a multi-year project on wedding traditions. Given unlimited time and resources, I would like to do a project combining research and public programming on life-cycle rituals, focusing on the cultural, religious, and ethnic communities in my region––a project that would provide the opportunity for communities to research and collect their traditions to archive and to pass on to younger generations as well as share them across cultures.

How does your current work impact the community and region in which you reside? What is, in your mind, the most important professional contribution that you make (or have made) to your community/region?

I am working with an advisory board in Kingston, New York, to conduct a cultural survey of the Latino/Hispanic community to both locate artists (both folk and “contemporary”), historians, tradition bearers, storytellers, etc. The goal is to provide assistance to artists (and others) as well as identify programming for and about the Latino/Hispanic communities. This is a growing community, but we just do not know a lot about them.

I hope that my work encourages people to learn new things about their own cultures and the cultures around them. By creating programs that allow for intimate contact between people we can generate understanding on a larger scale.

What sorts of issues are most pressing or urgent for the community/ region in which you reside? How do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

One of the pressing issues among the communities that I work is the aging of their members. Some do not have young members coming up, and the work gets harder and harder to complete. It becomes more difficult to get groups to commit to programming more than once a year due to human power issues.

Among immigrant communities, especially Latino/Hispanic, are fears of gathering in public, especially if they are undocumented.

It is, at times, difficult to create programming when few people are willing to commit. And we do not present programming about specific groups without their direct involvement.

How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of the local community?

I came to the mid-Hudson region for the job at Arts Mid-Hudson. I love how the local community has embraced me and the number of ways I have become involved. I volunteer at a local historic site (where we also hold an open fiber group gathering and we are starting a heritage textile program––both of which I am integral in starting). The arts community is vibrant and an integral part of the revitalization of the area.

What do you most wish outsiders knew about the area or community where you reside? What are some common regional or local stereotypes or misconceptions that you often find yourself trying to disprove?

Poughkeepsie is a hidden gem on the Hudson River, not as chic as Beacon or Kingston, but there is a lot of art, culture, and history to be experienced here at very reasonable prices.

Poughkeepsie has suffered from redlining–evident in the East-West arterials which cut the city into three areas. Additionally, there is the city of Poughkeepsie and the town of Poughkeepsie which have distinctly different economic and class stratifications. The town of Poughkeepsie is home to Vassar College and there is a historic town and gown divide, which the college is attempting to change (to be fair).

Please briefly describe one or more regional traditions that you’ve studied ethnographically since arriving in the region that you find particularly distinctive or compelling. Tell us how you have presented that work.

This past summer I had the opportunity to work with three of the last commercial fisherman on the Hudson River. Commercial fishing has been regulated to near extinction. I interviewed the three fishermen and then presented them in an afternoon where they told tales of the river. This program was funded by Long Island Traditions and took place at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The program has led to a lasting partnership with the museum. Also, two of the fisherman now want to create videos about commercial fishing on the Hudson.

What kinds of things occupy your personal time? In particular, what sorts of distinctively local or regional activities, endeavors, or commitments do you pursue when you’re not on the job?

As I stated above, I volunteer at a local historic house. I also spin, knit, and crochet. The local libraries have lots of great free programming that I try to attend as does the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory which has artists residences and studios.

My favorite activity is as a volunteer with American Field Service (the other AFS) Student Exchange program. The program sends high school students to different parts of the world for a semester or year-long experiences. This year I am a liaison between two students: a young Cuban man who currently lives in the Dominican Republic and a young woman from Bangladesh. My job is to be available if they have issues with their host families or host schools. Luckily, my students are happy in their placements so we get to focus on fun activities such as skating and parties. I enjoy getting their take on American life. Each year the students put on a festival exhibiting their cultures to the public. This year it is in Poughkeepsie, and I am integral in planning the program.

Given your position on the local committee and your insider knowledge of the area and community, what is the one thing (not related to the AFS Annual Meeting) that folklorists visiting Buffalo can’t afford to miss?

Skip Buffalo and come to Poughkeepsie (sort of kidding).

What question(s) would you like us to ask of other “featured folklorists”? Please provide your own answer to the question.

What led you to folklore?

My path to folklore is kind of funny. I was studying for my master’s in cultural anthropology at California State University, Sacramento, under George Rich and Valerie Wheeler. George was a protégé of Dan Crowley, who also took me under his wing. A year before I was finished with my masters, Dan and I were having a conversation about my future. He asked me what my plans were, and I told him I thought I would get a teaching credential and teach high school social studies. He looked at me and said, “No. You are going to get a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University.” When I told George about the conversation he said, “Great idea; you are too funny for anthropology.” And here I am, a public folklorist with a doctorate from Indiana University. My only regret is that Dan did not live long enough to see me achieve that goal. 

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